BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The asteroid presumed to have wiped out the dinosaurs struck the Earth with such force that carbon deep in the Earth's crust liquefied, rocketed skyward, and formed tiny airborne beads that blanketed the planet, say scientists from the U.S., U.K., Italy, and New Zealand in this month's Geology.
The beads, known to geologists as carbon cenospheres, cannot be formed through the combustion of plant matter, contradicting a hypothesis that the cenospheres are the charred remains of an Earth on fire. If confirmed, the discovery suggests environmental circumstances accompanying the 65-million-year-old extinction event were slightly less dramatic than previously thought.
"Carbon embedded in the rocks was vaporized by the impact, eventually forming new carbon structures in the atmosphere," said Indiana University Bloomington geologist Simon Brassell, study coauthor and former adviser to the paper's lead author, Mark Harvey.
The carbon cenospheres were deposited 65 million years ago next to a thin layer of the element iridium -- an element more likely to be found in Solar System asteroids than in the Earth's crust. The iridium-laden dust is believed to be the shattered remains of the 200-km-wide asteroid's impact. Like the iridium layer, the carbon cenospheres are apparently common. They've been found in Canada, Spain, Denmark and New Zealand.
But the cenospheres' origin presented a double mystery. The cenospheres had been known to geologists only as a sign of modern times -- they form during the intense combustion of coal and crude oil. Equally baffling, there were no power plants burning coal or crude oil 65 million years ago, and natural burial processes affecting organic matter from even older ages -- such as coals from the 300-million-year-old Carboniferous Period -- had simply not been cooked long or hot enough.
"Carbon cenospheres are a classic indicator of industrial activity," Harvey sa
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